New Jersey Star Ledger 8/28/13

One year later: Death of Ruben Martinez

Daily Record
By: Rob Jennings and Meghan Van Dyk
June 26, 2009

Denville Police Officer Richard Byrne was honored Wednesday by the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police for his role in a traffic stop that occurred one year ago today and ended with Byrne fatally shooting 21-year-old motorist Ruben Martinez.

Byrne, a 15-year Denville officer who remains on paid leave from a shoulder injury suffered in the June 26, 2008 confrontation, received the Valor Award at the association's dinner in Atlantic City, according to Denville Police Chief Christopher Wagner.

Wagner, who defended his officer throughout a grand jury investigation that cleared Byrne of wrongdoing, was among those in attendance.

"I continue to state that what happened was tragic, but Officer Byrne did what he had to do," Wagner said. "Ritchie will forever be a different person as a result of this."

It was the second honor stemming from the case presented to Byrne, who did not respond to phone calls for comment. Previously, Byrne was given an award by the 200 Club of Morris County, an organization that Wagner said provides support to police, firefighters and emergency medical providers.

The Martinez family, meanwhile, recently changed lawyers and is planning to proceed with a civil suit over the shooting according to their new attorney.

A notice of claim filed last summer by the family's former attorney, Scott Leonard, contends the 2005 Morris Knolls High School graduate was deprived of his civil rights under the U.S. Constitution and the state Civil Rights Act; that excessive, deadly force was used; and that the Denville Police Department was negligent in training officers in how to effectuate a traffic stop and in vehicle pursuit policies.

"This was a reckless and Keystone Cop-style chase over a traffic infraction," attorney Shelley Stangler said. "Our position is that the officer failed to follow the most rudimentary protocol and anyone with proper training would have pursued other avenues.

Attorney Anthony Pope, who represented Byrne during the grand jury investigation, said a lawsuit would be without basis and questioned whether the family would go ahead with it.

The grand jury investigated the matter thoroughly. There's no wrongdoing, no improper action, by Officer Byrne. I think he acted appropriately - in fact, he used enormous restraint to avoid the circumstances that ultimately happened, " Pope said.

The fatal confrontation began with a seemingly routine report of a speeding vehicle shortly after 2 a.m. Byrne was dispatched from police headquarters and quickly located Martinez's Ford Mustang, which made an illegal turn from Franklin Road onto Route 46 East.

Video from Byrne's police cruiser captured a brief pursuit in which the Mustang sped onto nearby streets and through a stop sign before spinning around and coming to a halt. With a second Denville officer providing backup, Byrne approached the vehicle and ordered Martinez, seen trying to restart the car, to get out.

The Mustang was lunging forward and back as Byrne knelt into the vehicle, trying to disable the ignition. As Byrne struggled, Martinez accelerated - causing the passenger door to clip Byrne's vehicle and slam the passenger door shut with Byrne inside. The Mustang then tore down Franklin Road, out of range of Byrne's cruiser recorder. Byrne, fearing for his life, fired five shots, killing Martinez.

The case was presented by Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi to a grand jury, which decided not to issue any indictments. Martinez's driver's license had been suspended in New Jersey, and toxicology tests showed he had marijuana in his system and a blood-alcohol content of .16 percent, or twice the .08 percent level at which a motorist is deemed intoxicated in the state.

Bianchi, in a news conference afterward, agreed with the decision.

"Common sense dictates that a vehicle reaching speeds with unrestrained persons of upwards of 80-90 mph and 55-65 mph over the speed limit in a residential area poses a risk of serious injury and likely death. " Bianchi said at the time.

Martinez, who was living in Laredo, Texas, had returned to Morris County to attend his younger brother's commencement from Morris Knolls. The graduation took place on the day he died.

One year later, Martinez family members - mother Maureen Miles and brothers Mark and Freddy - have moved from their Green Pond Road home in Rockaway Township, but remain in Morris County. Mark recently finished up his freshman year at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where Martinez had applied in hopes of becoming a mechanical engineer.

"The family remains distraught. They're crushed," Stangler said. "The family is very private and they want to keep it that way. They just want to deal with it themselves."

Martinez's close friend, Sean Ferris, said he plans to observe a moment of silence today on Franklin Road, near where Martinez's vehicle slammed into a swimming pool after he was shot. The 22-year-old Rockaway Township man met Martinez when they were kids and they remained close, spending time together the day before the shooting.

"Time has gone so fast," Ferris said. "I still think about him all the time. I remember what we used to do together, still think about the day before, how he hugged me and told me he loved me-that still freaks me out to this day. I drive by (Franklin Road) from time to time and still think of that pool and that street corner. "

Wagner said the case had a "lasting effect" on his department.

"It's been a long year for us. It's something we talk about daily." Wagner said.

The department remains solidly behind Byrne, he added. Whether or not Byrne returns, pending medical clearance, is up to him.

"He is still a member of the police department in good standing. He's still one of us," Wagner said.